As cinema fare, documentaries are rarely crowd-pullers. A few that make it are perhaps exceptional. Should you bother to see this one?

Michael Moore films tend to be pretty divisive. Some people avoid them on principle. He is not known for taking a balanced approach, for meticulous arguments, or for openness to views beyond his own. You’ll probably find a more impartial appraisal of health care systems on Wikipedia. Sicko is not documentary as we know it. Maybe not documentary as we want it. Yet Moore is getting better at what he does best. He uses every trick in the book to excite the audience. And that’s it.

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He is like a shot of concentrated emotion supercharged with adrenalin. If you didn’t feel passionately about health care systems before seeing this film, the chances are you will afterwards. Even the most uneducated viewer will recognise that Sicko portrays non-US health care systems through rose-coloured lenses. Does this make you angry? Calmer viewers may say that is not the point – and I agree. Moore is not making academic comparisons. Sicko is a vivid and emotional polemic. It’s not even agit prop, as he has neither agenda nor solution. He simply wants to alert the viewer that there is something sick in the way the US delivers medicine. The US is the only wealthy, industrialised nation that does not provide universal health care. Whether you are from the US or from elsewhere, Sicko is perhaps the most startling two hour illustration of this. Even given that millions of folk that he doesn’t mention are no doubt pretty happy with it.

What I found most worrying were the political scandals he uncovered. Widespread contributions from companies that would lose out from reform. Politicians moving to highly paid jobs in the health industry after a political stint. Barriers to getting reform passed in such an environment would be enormous. And without adequate safeguards, the remedy could be worse than the cure. (Moore’s preferred option, digging down through his website, seems to be H. R. 676, “The United States National Health Insurance Act.” He is critical of most politicians who talk of universal health care – talk, he suggests, that is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.)

An advantage of Sicko, coming from such a flamboyant director, is that the official website contains plenty of references and resources. This is an improvement on his earlier work. I am starting to think this overweight, antagonistic man actually cares.

But don’t expect him to stop being Michael Moore... Early in the film, we have a mother who blackmails her health insurer by mentioning the movie. Towards the end, Moore takes 9/11 volunteers to Guantanamo Bay and thence to Cuba. He uses the Cuban health care system to get them treatment for their 9/11 related illnesses. He sends an anonymous cheque to his main detractor, whose medical bills are threatening his ability to attack Moore online. The blackmailing mother gets a vital ear implant for the young daughter. The 9/11 rescue workers get $120 medicines for a few cents (as well as free hospital treatment). Moore’s opponent gets to pay for his wife’s health care. But without these fanfares would the picture have gone beyond little known festivals? And were these things wrong on balance?

He might be flashy, opinionated, even obnoxious, but I think I might start to like this man. He stood up to his own producer and financier, Harvey Weinstein, who wanted a scene critical of Hillary Clinton deleted. He risked seizure and prosecution over his visit to Cuba. He’s soft on teenagers who download pirated copies of his film. The Urban Institute, a non-partisan policy research group, had mixed views of Sicko, but commented “Though Moore is not interested in the details behind the outrages he has assembled, many of his fundamental points are nevertheless accurate.” Which also seems to me quite a good assessment.

The moans we have about the UK healthcare system suddenly seem pretty minor. The problems of third world countries hardly make the real problems of first world countries insignificant. And there are enough problems of a historical scale highlighted in Sicko for the intelligent – perhaps more intelligent than Moore – viewer to be worried. My own worry is that The United States of America may already have passed the point of no return. It will often lead the world in technology – whether medical or military – but the humanitarian hopes of the Founding Fathers have perhaps been sunk beneath an impenetrable bureaucracy.

Reviewed on: 05 Feb 2008
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Michael Moore investigates corruption in the American health insurance industry.
Amazon link

Read more Sicko reviews:

Jennie Kermode ***1/2
Jeff Robson ***1/2

Director: Michael Moore

Writer: Michael Moore

Starring: Michael Moore, George W. Bush, Reggie Cervantes, John Graham, William Maher, Richard Nixon, Linda Peeno

Year: 2007

Runtime: 113 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


London 2007

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